My favorite no-frills, apparatus-education conference each year is the Fire Department Safety Officers Association's Apparatus Symposium in Orlando. This year, if the list of legal liabilities offered at the beginning of the conference didn't get my attention, the death threats at the end certainly did.
The keynote presenter was attorney Jim Juneau, who offered the "Firefighter Law School." In it, he described laws relating to the fire service and standards of care, and what their applications are in the community.
"You are always — always — personally responsible for what you do," Juneau said. "If you are held liable, you will pay from your own pocket, and that means your pension, your house and your future earnings. … [And] if you have the ability to change the behavior of someone else, you will be held responsible if something happens."
When Juneau presented at his first Apparatus Symposium 15 years ago, he asked how many departments had firefighters riding on tailboards; a couple dozen raised their hands. This year, when he asked the same question, no hands went up. "Times have changed," he said. "However, how many of you have kids riding on top of apparatus in parades? What makes you think it is OK to put a 12-year-old on top a fire truck and drive at 5 mph? Do you really think you can catch a kid that falls from the truck?"
Juneau is passionate about apparatus safety and educating emergency vehicle technicians to protect themselves. "If you don't have the authority to take a rig out of service, then write it up so that someone in authority will understand why it should be taken out of service and that they will be responsible if something happens," he said. "If you don't document, it didn't happen. It doesn't matter if it's e-mail, a yellow pad or taking pictures — everybody's got a cell phone!"
There was some good news mixed among Juneau's dire warnings. In 2011, only three firefighters died in motor-vehicle accidents while not wearing seatbelts, down significantly from previous years. But in the first three weeks of 2012, three firefighters had already died in accidents without buckled seatbelts, Juneau said.
"How many of you have given somebody a day off for not wearing a seatbelt?" he asked. No one raised a hand. "Why not?" he then asked. He said after an unbelted-firefighter fatality, Fire Chief Charles Hood required seatbelt drills for all members of the San Antonio Fire Department.
Later, Virginia Lutz, a field investigator for, explained her agency's role in investigating LODDs and described several fatal roadside accidents involving fire apparatus that she investigated.
The most recent accident involved a fire department responding to a grass fire in the median of a highway. The apparatus driver pulled over and purposely measured two arm lengths, or 78 inches, from the apparatus to the roadside guardrail. A minor accident between a van and a car, however, resulted in the car careening at 47 mph between the fire truck and the guardrail, striking two firefighters and killing one.
"They are out to kill you," she said. While Lutz was quick to add that NIOSH does not find fault or place blame, fire departments need to practice heightened safety on the roadways. Lutz encouraged fire departments to develop pre-plans with police, transportation and other departments to create safe emergency work zones.
"Putting out cones can be more hazardous on the highway than using a parked apparatus and flashing lights," she said, and then reiterated, "they're out to kill you."